Oxford enjoys so much cultural richness, it’s easy to become blasé about the daily events in our city. This year we have not one, but two performances of the complete organ works of JS Bach. Professor Daniel Hyde, Informator Choristarum, Organist and Tutorial Fellow in Music at Magdalen College, Oxford can be heard at Merton Chapel on Thursday lunchtimes, during term. He is already a third of the way in to the Bach cycle.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Queen’s College’s great Frobenius organ, John Scott inaugurated the first of a new cycle of distinguished organists’ interpretation of Bach on Saturday night in Queen’s College Chapel.
The Frobenius at Queen’s was completed in 1965. It was representative of the ‘organ reform movement’ which sought to restore ‘classical’ ideals of organ design. It’s one of the finest instruments in the country, and the Festival has brought back previous Organ Scholars from Queens, as well as distinguished musicians from abroad, such as Scott.
After 26 years at St Paul’s Cathedral, Scott is now Organist and Director of Music at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York. He played a programme of both Bach’s ‘freer’ preludes, fugues and sonatas, with examples from the more traditional chorale tradition.
According to David Ledbetter, Bach demonstrated how ‘the values of unageing intellect could be recreated in terms of modern style. Throughout his life, he integrated new elements into his scope.’ Not being a professional musician, I found the programme notes very helpful.
The organ’s ability to imitate other instruments and musical forms was demonstrated in the sparkling Sonata V in C while the magisterial chorale works (651, 654 and 658) from ‘The Eighteen’ showed Bach’s determination and success in striving to perfect the organ chorale – at the same time as Andrew Reid notes it was ‘dying out.’ Bach’s versatility – his comprehensibility and expressiveness were masterly displayed.
Nicholas Hawksmoor’s building with its magnificent stucco ceiling and imposing proportions was a wonderful setting for an evening of Bach brilliance – both the composer, the musician and the instrument perfectly attuned to a vision of the Sublime.